Writing in Computerworld the other week, veteran computer industry observer and consultant Phil Dorn pointed out that IBM, which decided to unbundle its operating software and sell it separately from the hardware 20 years ago when anti-trust pressures threatened to become too hot, had quietly returned to a major element of bundling with the AS/400 […]
Writing in Computerworld the other week, veteran computer industry observer and consultant Phil Dorn pointed out that IBM, which decided to unbundle its operating software and sell it separately from the hardware 20 years ago when anti-trust pressures threatened to become too hot, had quietly returned to a major element of bundling with the AS/400 computer without a squeak out of anybody. Flak It is DEC that has been taking all the flak from Adapso, the Association of Data Processing Service Organisations for having the temerity to bundle its RMS database management system with its VMS operating system, while IBM’s massive bundling in the AS/400 has passed without a murmur. Yet while users can always throw RMS in the waste bin if they prefer Oracle, AS/400 users have no such option – the database is built right in to the bones of the machine, as is most of the OS/400 operating system. And since you have to pay for both in the price of the machine, it seems unlikely that the AS/400 would be a very cost-effective vehicle for Unix even if someone were to put it up on the machine (the Unix fraternity within IBM is dead keen to put AIX on the AS/400, but most of the company says over our collective dead bodies). Of course there is nothing new in the database being built into an IBM machine – the AS/400’s predecessor System/38 machine was exactly the same: the difference is that where the System/38 was regarded by IBMers that happened not to live in Rochester, Minnesota with the same contempt and loathing that IBMers that don’t live in Austin, Texas feel for Unix today, the AS/400 is IBM’s escape route from the acute embarrassment of the 9370. The AS/400 is now the IBM mid-range machine with the clear duty to sell in hundreds of thousands over the next five years and contribute the next generation of high-end mainframe fodder that pays all IBM’s bills. But now, president Jack Kuehler seems to be saying (CI No 1,259), the AS/400 is to be a role model for all IBM’s product lines: the successors to the 3090s, future generations of PS/2s will be so stiff with microcode that they won’t be able to move without creaking. OS/2 Extended Edition in microcode would go a long way to alleviating the chorus of criticism over how much random access memory the thing commandeers, and one clear way of tripping up Fujitsu Ltd in its efforts to replicate MVS/ESA would be to put a lot of that into microcode, along with DB2, which might well improve its snail-like operation and start to run at least as fast as a tortoise. Choice fatigue Who wins (apart from IBM of course)? It is likely that many users will feel themselves to be winners. These days, many users feel a bit like former citizens of the German Democratic Republic after they have been in the Federal Republic for a month or two and find themselves beginning to suffer from choice fatigue. So many glittering goods to choose from, no-one to tell them what they may and may not do, where they may and may not go: choices, choices all the time can get wearing. How does a Unix user make an intelligent decision faced with the rival blandishments of Oracle Corp, Sybase Inc, Relational Technology Inc, Informix Software Inc, Unify Corp et al: oh for the days when it was dBase or nothing. Moreover most users – even American and Dutch ones who always feel they have to have the release after next of their current software, current system, yesterday – would really much prefer to have steady state computing than constant revolution: regular infusions of additional power, yes, but endless change, no. The idea of upgrading one’s software with a microcode change that guarantees that the machine will come up exactly the way it did with the previous version without disturbing any of the applications would be a tremendous improvement on new software releases that keep a mainframe wastefully occupied for six months of testing. And increasingly, users aren’t tecchies or even professional data processing managers and operatives, they are modestly computer literate lay people that don’t want to spend three days in
stalling a communications program just to get their AT to talk to MCI Mail – they want a loaded and ready machine that they plug in to the mains and the phone and that then asks them which electronic mail service they require. Loser So the new concept of concealed bundling that IBM seems to be moving towards will not generate many howls of anguish from the user community – software is already outrageously expensive, but there is little reason to fear that the cost will go onto a faster rising curve if it is built into the price of the hardware – and as well as the benefit of much improved performance, it should be a lot more reliable. Who loses? The biggest single loser has to be that $1,400m a year system software company that lives in Garden City, New York. IBM is not going to load the price so little when the software is bundled with the hardware that users will readily eschew the IBM software even for much better alternatives from third parties. And Computer Associates Inc is just the biggest of a host of system software targets – Oracle Corp, optimistic that disaffected DB2 users will end up consulting the Oracle is another – that IBM will pick off with its new form of bundling. In a world that is increasingly demanding open systems, everything that IBM is doing is still designed to lock the user in to IBM as tightly as possible – that is really what lies behind Systems Application Architecture, so much so that the standards-dedicated fraternity is going to have to turn Posix, or something like it, into a vendor-independent Systems Application Architecture. And if IBM is as successful as it hopes, ultimately the user will lose as the company slows progress down to its own pace and is able to name its own price for every system that it sells.